Why you shouldn’t hate a role play: stretching your interview skills

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March 2018

By Partner, Jade Maloney and Senior Consultant, Kerry Hart

Ever had an interviewee give monosyllabic answers or talk non-stop on an entirely different topic? What about someone who becomes overwhelmed by the conversation and perhaps even cries?

Over years of interviewing, we’ve encountered a range of challenging situations like these. Because people are people – with different values, beliefs and experiences, in different contexts – there are unfortunately not many hard and fast rules about how to respond (besides things like being authentic, respectful, and non-judgemental). This is what makes interviewing and focus group facilitation so challenging. But it’s also what makes it engaging, exciting and energising.

On April 22, the participants in our interviewing skills workshop for the Australasian Evaluation Society (AES) took turns role-playing challenging interview situations – testing out strategies to get an interview back on track and ensure interviewees feel comfortable and safe to share their views.

A reluctant participant (e.g. consistently gives one-word answers or shrugs their shoulders):

  • Get comfortable with silence. If you wait long enough (but not too long), the interviewee may step in to fill the void. It may also be that the person needed time to collect their thoughts before responding more fully.
  • Give them the reins. The person may feel your questions are not getting to what matters for them. Ask them what they’d like to tell you about.
  • Lighten the mood, be humorous, if the context is appropriate. This might break the tension.
  • Leave your specific questions aside; discuss a related topic. If the person is feeling uncomfortable with the interview situation, this can provide some time out to build trust.
  • Call the situation for what it is. Note that the person seems uncomfortable being there or that something seems to be bothering them. Give them an opening to share the thinking behind their behaviour. It may be important to understanding how the program or policy you’re reviewing is working.
  • It’s also important to recognise that sometimes, no strategies will work, and the person has a choice not to talk.
  • Be particularly careful when deciding to call on people who haven’t contributed in a focus group. There may be underlying group dynamics that you’re not aware of that are making this person feel uncomfortable sharing. Sometimes it can be better to catch the person on their own at the end of the group to see if they had anything to add

A tangential talker (e.g. needs to tell you about their key concerns before they can get into the interview questions; starts telling you about their entire career history when you ask them about their current role; or talks about all of their friendships when you asked them if they enjoyed a particular social activity):

  • If a person needs to get something off their chest at the start of an interview be respectful and listen. Sometimes taking an extra 10 minutes for this can mean the rest of the interview just flows.
  • Generally, don’t cut someone off in the middle of a sentence. But sometimes you may need to, particularly in a focus group where one person is dominating and others are feeling uncomfortable.
  • Recognise that sometimes a person on a tangent is actually trying to tell you something. After a while you may find them looping back to the topic at hand.
  • Tell that that you want to come back to something they said earlier (that was on topic), which was really interesting for the evaluation. This can be a good way to gently steer things back on track.
  • Tell them that you are conscious of their time and other commitments, but you want to make sure you capture their views on the key questions, so you would like to focus on these, so that you have their full input for the evaluation.

A person who becomes emotional or distressed:

  • If you think an interview context could potentially raise an emotional response, be prepared and prepare your interviewee. Let them know that some questions may be confronting, that they can choose not to answer and can take things at their own pace. Have contacts for supports you can refer to in place, if needed.
  • Give the person space. Ask if they’d like to take a breather or a longer break, come back to the interview at another time or end it there. Give them the choice. Don’t decide for them.
  • Lower your voice and slow things down.
  • Have boundaries, but remember you’re human. An emotional response can sometimes be appropriate when interviewing people experiencing life challenges.

Of course, there’s a need to understand the individual and the context in applying any strategies. The value of role playing isn’t that you’ll have perfected your exact response to any given situation. What it can do is help you to develop the agility to respond authentically and appropriately to the individuals and situations you encounter.

But, as one of our participants pointed out, the other value that stepping into an interviewee’s shoes provides is the ability to see things from their perspective. Having had this experience can make you pause next time you encounter a challenging situation and think what might be going on for the person. The person is probably trying to tell you something with their behaviour and non-verbal cues. Be attuned to this and open to their perspective.

Who said they hate role plays?

We really enjoyed our day running workshops on interview skills and questionnaire design for the AES. We also run tailored workshops for organisations. You can find out more by calling 02 9373 9900.